By Tony Attwood
If you have heard a bit about Henry Norris (later Lt Col Sir Henry Norris) the chances are it will be bad. Which is a shame, since he was the man who singled handedly made sure that Arsenal survived its darkest hour in 1910.
Today, 18 May, is the anniversary of the day when Arsenal came to within minutes of falling apart and I thought I ought to set the record straight, not least because I doubt anyone else will.
For not only did Henry Norris he plough his own money into the club with a far greater level of honour than clubs going bust ever show today, (he paid off not just the “football debts” but all the money owed, including one huge sum who wasn’t even shown on the official list of debts when he made the commitment), he also promised to keep Arsenal alive in its Woolwich home for a year.
And then he exceeded his promises by going much, much further, paying for the loss-making club to stay at Plumstead for three years, before moving Arsenal north and ultimately bringing in Herbert Chapman and setting up the most successful club of the 1930s.
So why does he still have such a bad press all these years later?
First, the story of his moving of the club from Plumstead to Islington is one that was opposed by Tottenham Hotspur, and from the moment the idea was launched in 1912, they fought tooth and nail against it. Because the plan was that of Henry Norris, they focussed on him, and worked hard to ruin his reputation.
Second, when Arsenal were elected to the 1st Division in 1919, Tottenham were relegated (having come bottom of the first division in the final pre-war season). Tottenham again went on the attack over this (even though they were relegated fair and square and promoted again the following season), inventing all sorts of conspiracy theories in the process.
As we have shown on this site in a brilliant article by Andy Kelly, there was absolutely nothing amiss about Arsenal’s election to the first division. Where there was something amiss was that the issue of Liverpool and Man U’s match fixing was never resolved, except that Chelsea (who suffered as a result of the match fixing) were also given a place in the first division.
Third, in 1919 Sir Henry appointed Leslie Knighton as manager. This was a bad move by Sir Henry, as Knighton was a disaster, and nearly relegated the club twice, and so inevitably his contract was not renewed in 1925. But worse, after Knighton had had a modest career as a manager and eventually retired to Bournemouth, 20 years after leaving Arsenal, and with no access to any Arsenal documentation, he wrote a series of sensational articles for the Sunday papers. In these articles he invented a whole series of false stories about his time with Norris, and these were all believed. Indeed they still are.
By the time of publication Sir Henry was long since gone, and so couldn’t reply. And although George Allison also published his autobiography at exactly the same time (undoubtedly as an attempt to deflect from Knighton), it was the sensational tales of drug taking, broken promises and the impossible demands of Sir Henry that hit the headlines.
While Allison had nothing but praise for Sir Henry (and it is interesting to note that Allison had known Sir Henry in 1910 as well as during the Knighton and Chapman years) this was ignored by the press. Knighton’s articles, immediately reprinted as a book, were a sensation and they destroyed Norris’ reputation once and for all.
Virtually every allegation since then has been shown to be false, (even though you will still find them reprinted in some football history books, and of course paraded on Wikipedia) and it is as much a reflection on football historians as anything else that the tales of Sir Henry refusing to spend more than £1000 on a player, and Knighton being forced to play the brother of the club physio have been taken to be true. They were all false and the most atrocious libel. Except you can’t libel someone who is dead.
It was Henry Norris who built Highbury and transformed Arsenal into London’s leading club. It is true he fell from grace in the end, but he did so over a matter so trivial it is bizarre. Sir Henry had paid off all the debts of Arsenal in 1910, had paid for Highbury in 1913 and taken a great risk by taking on a full-repairing lease at the start when he was unable to buy the ground outright.
But then there was a mistake in the accounting over a question of a few hundred pounds, and the FA, who had long been at odds with Sir Henry’s forward thinking approach, took the chance to ban him from football.
But the main thing to remember is that virtually everything you read about Norris is untrue. Hopefully in the coming months I can start to put the record straight.
Meanwhile the full story is told in the Woolwich Arsenal book, while a fictional account of 1910 is given in Making the Arsenal